Luis Federico Leloir

Luis Federico Leloir Biography

Chemist, Scientist (1906–1987)
Luis Federico Leloir received the 1970 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery and study of sugar nucleotides.


Born on September 6, 1906, in Paris, France, Luis Federico Leloir established the Institute for Biochemical Research in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1947. For his discovery and study of sugar nucleotides, which help the body store certain sugars and transform them into energy, Leloir received the 1970 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He died on December 2, 1987, in Buenos Aires.

Early Life

Luis Federico Leloir was born on September 6, 1906, at 81 Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris, France, a few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe monument. At the age of 2, he joined his extended family in Buenos Aires, Argentina, setting up the circumstances for him to pursue his scientific career.

In his autobiographical article, "Far Away and Long Ago," Leloir noted, "My great-grandparents came to Argentina, some from France, others from Spain, and bought land when it was cheap but still unsafe from the incursions of the Indians. Later these lands produced the cereal and grains and the cattle that brought riches to the country and to the pioneers who worked on them. These circumstances allowed me to devote myself to research when it was very difficult or impossible to find a full-time position for research."

Leloir's interest in science was unique in his family. He observed, "I do not know how it happened that I followed a scientific career. It was not a family tradition, because my parents and brothers were involved mainly in rural activities. My father had graduated as a lawyer, but did not practice. In our home there were always a lot of books on the most varied subjects, and I had the opportunity to acquire information on natural phenomena."

Career Success

Leloir graduated from the University of Buenos Aires medical school in 1932. While performing research at its Institute of Physiology from 1934-35, he worked alongside Professor Bernardo A. Houssay, who influenced his interest in adrenalin carbohydrate metabolism. Leloir spent a year at the University of Cambridge's Biochemical Laboratory before returning to the Institute of Physiology, where he studied the oxidation of fatty acids. After traveling to the United States in 1944, he worked as a research assistant in St. Louis, Missouri, and at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

A pivotal opportunity came in 1947, when he acquired financial support to set up the Institute for Biochemical Research in Buenos Aires. It was there he studied how the sugar in milk is created and processed by the human body. This in turn led to the breakthrough observation that sugar nucleotides help bodies to store certain sugars to transform them into energy. In 1970, Leloir won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his sugar nucleotides discovery.

During his acceptance speech, Leloir admitted, "I feel rather uneasy on considering that my name will join the list of the giants of chemistry such as [Jacobus Henricus] van 't Hoff, [Emil] Fischer, [Svante] Arrhenius, [William] Ramsay, [Adolf] von Baeyer." He ended his speech with the humble statement, "Finally, I might paraphrase [Winston] Churchill and say, 'Never have I received so much for so little.'"

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Leloir was the recipient of such honors as the Bunge and Born Foundation Award, the Benito Juarez Award, the Gairdner Foundation Award and Columbia University's Louisa Gross Horowitz Prize.

Personal Life

Leloir married Amelia Zuberbuhler in 1943 and together they had a daughter named Amelia. Despite his success in his field, he was self-deprecating about his shortcomings in other areas: "Among the negative abilities I might mention that my musical ear was very poor so that I could not become a composer or a musician," he wrote in "Far Away and Long Ago." "In most sports I was mediocre so that was another activity that did not attract me too much. My lack of oratorical ability closed the door to politics and law. I was a bad practicing physician because I was never sure of the diagnosis or of the treatment."

Leloir's work was influential in the world of science in the 20th century. He continued his research until his death on December 2, 1987, in Buenos Aires.

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